Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
This heart floss exercise takes us to a leper colony in the Congo region of Africa, the setting for Graham Greene’s novel, “A Burnt-Out Case.”
Querry, the story’s central character, is a world-famous architect who emerges incognito from a riverboat at a Congo leper village having lost interest in all aspects of his life. There the resident doctor diagnoses him as an emotional equivalent of a “burnt-out case”—a leper who arrives at the point that the disease has done its worst and literally burns itself out.
Burnout affects humans in all facets of life: professionally, mentally, maritally, even spiritually. A burnt-out case no longer takes pleasure in the things that once aroused joy, happiness, and fulfillment.
Sam was a teacher who began his career with high expectations. He threw himself into his profession with such ardor the school system soon chose him as the county teacher of the year. His students loved him. His peers loved him and fed off his enthusiasm.
But a series of disappointments and setbacks took their toll, and Sam’s star began to fade. He reached the point of dreading to walk into his classroom. Conflicts erupted between him and his students that carried over into his professional relationships. Teaching became such a burden, he often chose to call in sick rather than face another work day. Finally, completely burned out, Sam tendered his resignation. Fortunately, his experienced principal, like the physician in Graham Greene’s novel, recognized Sam’s symptoms as a “burnt-out case.” She persuaded Sam to take a leave of absence and recommended professional counseling, to which Sam agreed.
The counselor identified several factors that contributed to Sam’s professional demise. The major cause of his burnout was his unpreparedness for disappointments and setbacks. The idealistic passion that Sam brought to the classroom right out of college served him well at first but left him vulnerable when facing resistance by students and opposition from parents who didn’t share his enthusiasm. Defenseless against disapproval, Sam suffered wounds that wouldn’t heal, but only festered and grew worse.
In counseling, Sam learned to accept the inevitability of problems and disappointments in his profession. “Taking the bad with the good,” as the counselor articulated it, “and learning from it.” That’s something we must all learn at some point.
The Apostle Peter advises his readers to “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). In this world, trials will come. Sometimes they arrive with such ferocity that, like Querry in the novel, we find ourselves spiritually and emotionally decimated. A burnt-out case. But that’s not the end of the story. Having hit bottom, Querry once again finds a purpose in life by using his architectural skills to help with the construction of a hospital at the leprosery. Of course, being a Graham Greene novel, it couldn’t have a simple, happy ending. But your story can.
The Epistle of James calls upon Christians to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Sometimes, as found in the Graham Greene novel, a person must suffer to be whole.